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Tuesday, February 17, 1998 Published at 10:11 GMT

Special Report

Kofi Annan: Man with a mission

Oliver Conway considers the qualities possessed by the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan who is facing one of the toughest challenges of a long and distinguished career

Jordanian foreign minister Fayez al-Tarawanah describes the proposed visit by Kofi Annan to Baghdad as the last chance for peace: "He is maybe the only one capable of putting a political solution to the whole crisis ... this is the last card in the hand, and that's why there is a growing backing for his mission to the region."

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According to Kofi Annan himself - speaking to the BBC on taking over the UN's top job - confrontation is not his style: "When it comes to toughness, or firmness, I think those who know me know that even though I get people to work together and I am by nature a conciliator, I can be firm when it is necessary. And I can hold the line when issues or principle are involved. And let me say that I'm not one of those who believes that you have to pound the table or shout to be tough!"

Mr Annan was a UN diplomat for three decades before he won election to the Secretary Generalship. He has held senior positions in some of the UN's most difficult departments, and before his election was head of UN peacekeeping.

According to Dr Mats Berdal of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, it was in peacekeeping that Mr Annan won his reputation for getting results without confrontation, and where he won the support of many nations that later voted for him as Secretary General:

"He has a very non-confrontational style of management. He gets on very well with most members of the Security Council, particularly with troop contributing countries. He's sensitive to their concerns and responds very quickly to any queries from them."

Annan's selection

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Mr Annan's selection as successor to Boutros Boutros Ghali of Egypt was a messy and much criticised process. The decision, just two weeks before the post became vacant, ended weeks of wrangling within the Security Council. In particular, Washington, which backed Mr Annan, had engaged in a war of nerves with France, which had threatened to use its veto to reject his appointment. After days of informal voting, France suddenly withdrew its objections with no explanation, leaving the way clear for the 58-year-old Ghanaian diplomat. The United States - the richest and most influential UN member - backed Kofi Annan because they saw him as the man to reform the bureaucratic and inefficient UN structure.

Critical time

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Mr Annan took over the UN's top job at what many people considered to be the make-or-break moment in the organisation's history. Weighed down by the peace-keeping responsibilities that it had to shoulder in the post-Cold War new world order, and confronted by serious global social and economic problems, the UN was stretched beyond its capabilities.

Speaking shortly after his selection, Mr Annan set out his agenda: "I think my priorities will be working with the member states of the organisation, to redefine the goals of the United Nations. As we move into the 21st Century, I think it is important that we ask ourselves: what should the United Nations be doing?"

Reaching consensus on that was not going to be easy. Developing countries are always keen to see the UN doing more to tackle poverty and related issues, while much of the Western industrialised world is more concerned with matters such as human rights and democracy.

Last year Mr Annan unveiled a wide-ranging reform package, designed to cut waste and increase the responsiveness of the UN to crises such as the one over Iraq.

"The reforms I am proposing are bold reforms. They are the most extensive, far-reaching reforms in the 52 year history of our organisation. The aim is simple, to transform the organisation, to bring greater unity of purpose, greater coherence of efforts and greater agility in responding to an increasingly dynamic and complex world."

He had earlier showed that he could get tough with the US when he asked it to pay the $1.3bn dollars it owes to the UN. And this despite the fact that the US had single-handedly vetoed a second term for his Mr Boutros Ghali.

Agility and toughness

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If Mr Annan is to succeed in defusing the current Iraqi crisis, he will need both agility and toughness.

He himself ascribed the resolution of a similar crisis over Iraq late last year to the negotiating power of the UN: "The resolve and the determination to carry through has paid off, but it also proves that diplomacy sometimes works, and you don't always have to fight to win."

Will he be able to say the same this year? If so, He will need all his resolve and determination.

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